‘The things that you’re liable to read in the Bible…’

‘The things that you’re liable to read in the Bible…’ Jesus, wearing his ritual prayer shawl, reading from the scroll of the Torah in the synagogue. By J.J. Tissot, 1894
The Badly Behaved Bible: Thinking again about the story of Scripture

by Nick Page (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99)

This is a book which many people really need, but do not realise that they do. Anyone truly interested in the power of the Scriptures should read it. I suspect that for many people it may have a life-changing effect.

I enjoyed previous books by Nick Page, especially Revelation Road, his decoding of the Apocalypse of St John, or what many Christians call ‘The Book of Revelation’.

Here, however, it is the whole Bible, both the Old and the New Testaments, that passes under his scrutiny. He writes in a lively, very personal, down to earth style. There are even jokes – though perhaps a tad too many even for my taste – but everything he says is in line with current academic and theological thought. Only it is expressed in a manner that few academics or theologians would use.

Activity

But what the scholars think they know is often beyond the ken of the people in the pews. At one point Page says that after many years of writing, preaching and counselling, he has given up on Biblical study. It is that activity that he identifies as the real problem.

Modern translations of the Bible, no matter whose auspices they are published under, tend to concentrate on getting every grammatical and rhetorical minutia out of the ancient texts in Hebrew and Greek.

This, he suggests, kills the meaning of the Bible. Most Biblical translators simply cannot write, he claims. They end up depriving the Bible of its power to affect the reader, or listener (the scriptures were for centuries intended to be heard and not read privately).

But there is also the way people approach the Bible. It is rarely read as a whole. Evangelicals at their services, for instance, will be obediently turned to whatever passage in the Old or New Testament the preacher alludes to. Yet do they settle down to read for their own pleasure the full text? Rarely, he thinks. Study groups also deprive the Bible of its power, again by picking it apart, and not seeing it whole.

As regards the man-in-the-street language of the Bible, that is all too often tidied up to make it acceptable for modern polite readers. If you want to see the kind of language he means look up your Douay version of I Kings 25:34 – where the word ‘male’ is used to avoid reference to a natural function. Mark 7: 19 is another instance. On which Mr Page comments: “We mustn’t let the Bible be what it is. We have to censor it. Even when it comes out of the mouth of Jesus.”

But the theme of this book is that we look to the Bible for answers, but what it provides us with are not answers, but more questions. We have to think it out for ourselves.

We should not be put out by this. The translation can be misleading. In Matthew 28:17, the apostles encounter the resurrected Jesus: the translation says “they worshipped him, but some doubted”. Actually the text says “they worshipped him, but they doubted”. In this apostolic manner he urges us to embrace our doubt, and in that way realise the fullness of faith.

His last word: “The Bible is an invitation. The Bible is a call. The breath of God lifts its pages.”

Yet we want always to master the text, to control it. Rather than letting its stories change us, we try to change the Bible. “We want to make the Bible dance to our tune, but the Bible has music of its own.” It escapes our control, and Christians should follow where it indicates.

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